The late historian Fawn McKay Brodie was as unrepentant maverick as she was a gifted scholar and writer.
Raised in a singularly prominent Mormon family — the granddaughter of a Brigham Young University president and the niece of a member of the LDS Council of the Twelve Apostles — she exhibited an intellectual precocity from an early age, memorizing and composing reams of poetry.
Her turning away from her childhood faith began as a series of tepid steps that ended as a headlong flight, one likely helped along by her mother, a closet religious dissident who homeschooled her in the years leading up to high school. She capped off her high school career as class salutatorian — at the tender age of 14.
After completing her degree in English Literature at the University of Utah, Fawn enrolled at the University of Chicago to pursue a history degree. The highly fluid intellectual environment she encountered at this elite institution transformed her and placed her squarely on the road toward unbelief.
She compares her loss of faith to shedding an overcoat on a warm summer day. As a kind of consummation of her newly acquired apostasy, she married Bernard Brodie, a man of Lithuanian Jewish descent who later became a Yale professor and one of the principal architects of U.S. nuclear doctrine. Except for her mother, not a single family member attended her wedding.
After raising a family, Brodie returned to writing, eventually producing books, two of which transformed the way we look at two American historical figures. The first, published when she was only 30, is remembered not only as the first scholarly book on the life of Joseph Smith, the founder and prophet of Mormonism, but also as the first scholarly text to call the veracity of Smith’s testimony into account. What she revealed not only rocked the church to its foundations but also led to her eventual excommunication.
Her book about the private life of Thomas Jefferson, helped pioneer the genre of psychobiography and also focused scholarly debate on the alleged sexual relationship between Jefferson and slave, Sally Hemmings.
Brodie may have been an intrepid religious maverick, but her life embodies a disparity that is deeply rooted in the American experience. For while she spurned her childhood faith, she owes it significant debt. Her ancestors were among the thousands of frontier Americans from artisanal and laboring backgrounds drawn to the fledgling Mormon faith, which, like so many frontier creeds, was a religion of the book. It was a faith that, in the course of inspiring faithful devotion among its tens of thousands of early followers, often sparked a mania for literacy and other forms of self-improvement.
Countless thousands of Mormon converts, imbued with passion for their newfound faith, undertook a systematic effort to acquire literacy to master their sacred texts.
They ended long days of physical toil beside their hearths acquiring the rudiments of literacy. But, of course, the same could be said for most of the religious movements of the era — Seventh-Day Adventists and Christian Scientists and also for sects that hewed more closely to mainstream: Baptists, Methodists, Cumberland Presbyterians and Disciples of Christ. And this self-improving zeal gained traction with each new generation. How many sons — and, for that matter, daughters — of frontier preachers, elders and exhorters were encouraged by their fathers to carry the family fortunes beyond simple literacy by acquiring secondary education and, in some cases, college and even post-graduate degrees?
I reflected on this reading Ross Douthat’s recent thought-provoking piece titled “The Cult Deficit,” which explores how the presence of cults in American history have always served as bellwethers of creative innovation. He believes that the decline of cults may not only signal religious stagnation but even a ”decline in creativity writ large.”
As he contends in the article, cults can often be dangerous, but in many notable cases, they have gone a long way toward galvanizing moribund religions, refining religious discourse and even influencing mainstream secular thought.
And both directly and indirectly, they have placed tens of millions of people on the path to meaningful, enriching and productive lives.
A growing number of American elites may think that in the not-too-distant future religion will be regarded as an outmoded expenditure of intellectual and psychological energy — in evolutionary terms, somewhat akin to the appendix.
I, for one, have my doubts.